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Neuroscientists Object to Europe’s Human Brain Project

Critics call emphasis on large-scale computer simulations in EU brain project premature.

More than 180 neuroscientists have signed an open letter to the European Commission calling on it to reconsider the technical goals and oversight of one of the world’s largest brain-mapping projects, predicting it is likely to fail.

The European Union agreed last year to invest more than one billion euros in the Human Brain Project (HBP), a 10-year effort involving dozens of research institutions to create a simulation of how the human brain works, using supercomputers.

But according to a letter released by dissenting scientists, the project is doomed by opaque management and the pursuit of goals not widely shared by neuroscientists. “We believe the HBP is not a well-conceived or implemented project and that it is ill suited to be the centerpiece of European neuroscience,” the letter says.

Governments, including those of the United States and China, have all launched large neuroscience projects to study the brain (see “Brain Mapping”). But the brain is so massively complex—it has roughly 86 billion neurons and trillions of connections—that there’s little consensus on how to study it.

Europe’s HBP has been particularly controversial because it emphasizes large-scale mapping of the brain and computer simulations over traditional, small-scale bench research. The project’s core goal, according to its website, is “to build a completely new information computing technology infrastructure for neuroscience.”

Signers of the letter, including neuroscientists from the University of Oxford and the Institut Pasteur, intend to boycott 50 million euros per year of neuroscience research grants that have been linked to the EU project.

“Why should an information technology project determine neuroscience funding?” says Zachary Mainen, a researcher at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Portugal, which gathered the signatures after a component of the project it was involved with was cancelled. “It’s not a project that was planned by the neuroscience community. They say they are going to simulate the brain, but I don’t think anyone believes that.”

According to a report in the Guardian, the neuroscientists hope to influence a review of the project by European officials that is expected to be complete by the end of the summer.

The HBP is led by Henry Markram, a neuroscientist at the the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, who says critics are upset because there’s a scientific “paradigm shift” under way that threatens their way of working.

“It’s a natural reaction when you move from an old paradigm to a new one. It happened with the Human Genome Project,” says Markram. “That was also about large-scale, systematic teams working together, and you also had the individual labs saying ‘Oh my, I am going to be out of business.’ It’s very similar to that.”

Within two years, Markram says, the HBP will release the first phase of its technology platform, which will let any scientist contribute data and run simulations. He says this will bring neuroscience up to speed with disciplines like astrophysics or climate research, where scientists use simulations all the time. “You can’t measure everything in the Universe, but you can simulate it,” he says. “You can’t measure all of the brain, either, so we are going to have to predict a lot of it.”

That focus on computer simulations is what’s generating the most withering criticism. Konrad Kording, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, calls the European project “useless and misleading” and says there is “genuine concern that the neuroscience community in Europe will be damaged by a very high-profile project that is deeply misguided.”

The problem, says Kording, who is a German citizen, is that it’s simply too soon to invest heavily in large-scale computational models of the brain. “The HBP is premature, we do not have the data needed, we do not know what we need to simulate, and we lack ways of thinking computationally about the brain. And yet, the HBP focuses on massive scale simulations that are currently not helpful,” he says.

Kording helped shape the U.S. BRAIN Initiative, a large neuroscience program announced by President Obama last year. That initiative, which made its first awards in May (see “Military Funds Brain-Computer Interfaces to Control Feelings”), is broadly focused on developing new technologies for directly measuring the activity of neurons and mapping brain circuits.

While a few U.S. researchers have grumbled that the U.S. project is also too top-down and could discount truly creative research, the initiative has wide support. Even dissenting neuroscientists have kept their objections private in the hopes of participating in a funding windfall that the National Institutes of Health said in June could be as much as $4.5 billion over 12 years.

Ed Boyden, an MIT researcher who, like Kording, is closely involved in the Obama initiative, says the U.S. effort involves “small, dynamic teams working in traditional, often collaborative fashion.” He adds, “The funding is being parceled out at somewhat normal levels.”

According to Mainen, “The U.S. project is a lot better than what is going on here. The worst you can say about it is that it is bland and consensual. What we have in Europe is a narrow, nonconsensual project.”

Markram, however, is sticking to his contention that scientists need computer models, not just more data. There’s already $7 billion a year spent globally on neuroscience research, yet it produces little benefit for society, Markram says, and no one has time to read the 100,000 scientific papers published about the brain each year either.

“There is a ton of data being generated, but there is no plan for the data,” he says. “That is the crisis in neuroscience. The new paradigm is about sharing the data and integrating the data. With that, you can perform experiments not possible in the lab.”

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